Letting schools and trusts try out collaboration before formalising their partnerships is an idea whose time has come, writes David Carter. But it isn’t without some risks

A recent headline in these pages suggests the Secretary of State is advocating a ‘try-before-you-buy’ approach to more schools joining Multi Academy Trusts. In principle it is a good idea. It is also not entirely new; the Regional Schools Commissioners and I were talking about an associate school partnership model in 2017.

I see this as a solution to the nervousness that good and outstanding schools feel about joining a trust. I also see it as a solution to helping trusts add capacity to their school improvement strategy, as well as providing support quickly to those schools that needed help but where capacity was limited.

For good schools, it presents an opportunity to become a school improvement support provider. The reduction in the number of teaching schools means that there are still great schools who want to make a wider contribution to school improvement, and this could be one way to achieve that.

Some trusts have schools that are geographically isolated, affecting their access to school improvement support. For these schools, forming a partnership with a good school that is located nearby makes sense.

It gets the improvement cycle started without waiting for the legal process to catch up

For schools in need of more urgent help, this is a solution that accesses support quickly. Conversion from the maintained sector or from one trust to another is not a quick process. Every day the conversion takes is another day that children are being educated in a weak school. ‘Try before you buy’ has the advantage of getting the improvement cycle started without having to wait for the legal process to catch up.

The benefit to a multi-academy trust is that schools who form this alliance partnership will experience the quality of educational thinking, support and development first hand. Trusts then have the opportunity to convince the partner school to join them formally. In other words, the experience that the alliance school, staff and students get should become the compelling reason to join on a permanent basis.

So much for the model’s strengths – and clearly I am advocate – but it isn’t without its challenges and these need to be factored in.

For example, consideration has to be given to the length of time this arrangement lasts for. It has to be at least a year and ideally two. A two-year arrangement with a break clause after the first gives sufficient time for the trust to demonstrate the value of being a permanent member. It also gives the school time to improve so that they have other options open to them.

But the inherent risk to both partners is that they decide not to pursue the partnership. This could mean the trust loses important capacity or result in the school losing its support before improvement is consolidated.

The school that is being supported is not governed in the same way as the schools in the trust. The partnership function is improvement support and the contract (There has to be a contract!) has to stipulate the indicators of success and how both the trust and the school should work together.

In the hands of weak leaders, the model has the potential to over-promise and under-deliver, so setting out the parameters of the partnership is essential. Included in the contract or service agreement should be a costing of the support and what the financial resource is going to cover. Global figures that state in vague terms what is going to be provided is not going to be easy to audit and will undermine a properly informed decision about the partnership’s success.

Neither of these challenges – activation of the break clause and poor contracting – is insurmountable. As we think differently about how the sector recovers from the pandemic, it is ideas like this we should now be considering.

Trusts and their school communities have worked better together over the past year than at any time I can remember. The doors have opened to a different type of discussion, but it is right to acknowledge that doubts remain. By unlocking school improvement quickly and allowing partnerships to form, ‘try before you buy’ could become the key to building a better post-Covid sector.